When Capital Took Holt
WHEN CAPITAL "TOOK HOLT"
BY CAROLINE LOCKHART
IF there's one thing brings out the worst side of my nature more'n another, it 's gittin' holt of a can of dod-gasted, Injun bakin' powder that turns out sinkers like them."
Old Man McPherson slammed a tin of pale, rock-like biscuit upon the bare pine table and eyed them angrily.
"That air the seventh batch of armor-plate as I have been called to put in my stummick this week." There was a plaintive note in Dad Falkner's voice.
"Look here. Dad, if my cookin' don't suit that delicate palate of yourn, you know what you can do. I'm plumb sick of doin' general house-work, and any time you find yourself hankerin' after my job, I won't be nowise mad about your takin' it. There ain't been no washin' done in this shack fer over a month now, and I advises that you hit the floor about six to-morry mornin' and play up a little tune on the wash-board."
"My remark were n't intended fer a kick; it were merely an observation," Dad hastened to explain in a conciliatory tone, as he tried to puncture a biscuit with his thumb.
The apology was entirely satisfactory to the old man bending over the rusty cook stove which stood in one corner of the log cabin. His face cleared, and he cried cheerfully, as he set a frying-pan of bacon on the table and drew up the remnant of a chair, "Grab a root!"
Dad Falkner scraped the bottom of a dish which had contained stewed dried currants and sighed. "This air the last of the bear-sign, I s'pose?"
Old Man McPherson nodded.
"And the swine-buzzum air gone?"
His partner jerked his head in assent.
"I 'll have to take a couple of ca'tridges out to-morry and git a goat. Take a billy and cook him in sody fer a couple of hours, and he ain't bad eatin'."
"They ain't but one ca'tridge," Old Man McPherson replied shortly.
Dad Falkner's face sobered.
"We 're sure gittin' down to hard-pan, pardner," he said. "If capital don't git in here pretty soon and take holt of them mines, I won't have enough clothes left on me to flag a hand-car, if they was all red. I kind of had a hunch capital would come in on the stage to-night."
"Lem me see. Dad, you 've had that hunch twicet a week ever sence the Black Marier shet down, and that were six years ago."
Dad, the sanguine, ignored the sarcasm, and fumbled in his pocket for a bit of ore, from which he blew a few ptarmigan feathers, and passed it across the table.
"That 'll be a fine spec'min to show capital," he said eagerly. "I got that out 'n the Tud'shead to-day."
Old Man McPherson looked it over critically.
"It air a fair spec'min fer a blanket lead," he said, with studied indifference. "It might go two per cent."
"Blanket lead be blanked!" cried Dad, in quick anger. "The Tud'shead air a true fissure lead, and there 'll be a concentrator workin' there when your old hole in the ground air used fer a garbage dump fer the mine boardin' house. What fer a Jim Crow miner air you, anyhow, that you don't know a true fissure lead when you see it!" Dad glowered at the old man across the table.
Night after night the same dispute took place as to whether the Toad'shead claim was a blanket or a fissure lead. An angry silence now fell between the two old partners, which would last until morning, when they would awaken with the disagreement of the previous evening forgotten and their hearts filled with fresh hopes.
These two old men were among the half-dozen derelicts who remained in Boulder, clinging pathetically to the belief that the "busted" mining camp far back in the fastnesses of the towering Rockies would boom again. When Boulder boomed they would sell the Black Maria mine and the Toad'shead claim. They would go to that vague country known as "back East," where kinsfolk who were strangers now would welcome them "back East" to the land of milk and honey—the promised land of Canaan.
Year after year they hung on grimly, waiting for the capitalist who was to "take holt" and put new life into the devitalized camp by opening the abandoned Black Maria. Actual starvation now stared the old men in the face. Gradually they had sold all that was salable save a rifle. Horses, shot-guns, pack outfits—everything had gone for flour and bacon. They had nothing more to sell. To-night the silence which lay between them was due as much to depression as to ill feeling. Each realized that the end had come; they could hold on no longer.
The lean mongrel outside the cabin barked furiously. The door opened, and a stranger stepped inside. "Ah, bacon for supper," he observed cheerily as he sniffed the air. He pulled an empty starch box to the table and reached for a biscuit. He was unceremonious even for Boulder, and the men eyed him in surprise.
"Pitch into the swine-buzzum," said Old Man McPherson, the first to recover his presence of mind and manners.
The new-comer had a round bullet-head, upon which he wore a felt hat that, as he ate, he kept turning round and round. There was no back or front to it, and it fitted sidewise as well as any other way. There was a three-days' growth of black beard upon his face, above which gleamed a pair of deep-set gray eyes. He wore overalls, and one of his shoes was tied on with a necktie.
"What might I call your name, pard?" inquired Dad Falkner, after the sinkers had somewhat appeased the stranger's ravenous appetite.
The stranger threw a quick glance over each shoulder and then lowered his voice. "They call me 'The Man of Mystery.' I am a promoter. I have just made a fortune by putting on the market a corset which clamps on like a fire-horse's harness, and is removed with one jerk of a string attached to the front steel. I am now looking for new investments. Behind me I have capital."
The old partners started at the sacred name of Capital and exchanged glances.
"Take any interest in mines a-tall?" Dad asked eagerly.
"Corsets, mines, baby-food, all the same to me," replied the promoter, with a sweeping gesture.
"My pardner's mine, the Black Marier, air the very thing you air lookin' fer—went eleven per cent, copper in Spokane; six per cent, air a payin' proposition." Dad's "voice was tremulous with excitement. "The mine is patented, and 300 feet of tunnelin' is done. All you got to do now is to sink a shaft and git below water-level. When you do, Mister, you got a mine."
"Look here. Mystery," said Old Man McPherson, earnestly, to the stranger. "What Dad says is straight, but if you aims to make only one investment, I advises that you look into the Tud'shead. The Tud'shead air a payin' proposition from the start. The Tud'shead," he continued, with emphatic deliberation—"the Tud'shead air a true fissure lead."
It was the first time he had ever made the acknowledgment. Dad heard in amazement, then he sprang to his feet impulsively, and there was a catch in his voice as he cried, "Old Man, Old Man, you air a square pard!"
"To-morrow, if the weather permits," said the Man of Mystery, grandly, "I will step up to the Toad'shead and look over the property. If the inspection is satisfactory, I will notify my people in Deer Lodge to come on. I should like to retire now, if you please."
It was Dad Falkner who relinquished his bunk to the stranger, and Old Man McPherson who parted with a blanket that Capital might not sleep cold.
"I am accustomed to having my meals regularly," hinted the Man of Mystery as he dusted a place under the bunk for his hat and crawled in between the blankets.
Before sunrise the next morning, Dad Falkner was creeping over the frost-covered rocks of the basin to get the mountain-goat which had ranged there throughout the summer. The old man waited for the goat to come from his den half-way up the mountain-side. Dad swore as he noticed his tremulous hand. It meant so much, this one shot: it meant the proper entertainment of Capital; it meant the ability to hold on a few days longer, if there was to be haggling over the price of the mines.
The glacier on the Northern mountain was rosy with the light of the rising sun when the wary old goat came slowly from his den and stood on the edge of the precipice looking suspiciously into the basin below. The old man raised his rifle. The crack reverberated through the canons, and the goat, with a shattered shoulder, came hurtling down the mountain side.
"Pretty good shot you made there, Dad," said a jovial voice, and Dad turned from his work of skinning the odoriferous billy to see Bayard, the "tin-horn" lawyer from Choteau, standing behind him with fishing-tackle in hand.
"Company fer breakfast," replied Dad. "It were goat or nothin'."
"Nope; Capital," replied Dad, proudly. "My pard and me stand a good show of makin' our stake at last."
Bayard listened attentively to the story of the coming of the Man of Mystery.
"A queer customer," Dad concluded; "but a moneyed man, as you can see by the way he carries himself."
Bayard watched the old man as he skinned the goat and hung the carcass in a tree.
"McPherson and me will pack it down while the Cap'talist looks over the mines," he said, and Bayard stood looking after him as he slipped and slid down the steep trail to the cabin.
That he was not concerned in the prospective transaction gave Bayard a pang. Instinctively his crafty brain busied itself with wild schemes to benefit himself should capital "take holt." He sat down on a rock and stared contemplatively at the carcass of the mountain- goat. To let the old men reap the entire benefit of their years of labor and faith and patience seemed to Bayard like a criminal neglect of his own interest. He forgot the trout at the foot of the falls which he was to take back to his camping party for breakfast.
A smile spread over Bayard's face till it became a fixed grin, and he began to swear softly. They were blithe curses of congratulation. He picked up his fishing-tackle and walked briskly back to the tent.
The Man of Mystery seemed restless after breakfast. He moved from the window to the door and watched the road through the pines as though he were expecting somebody.
"You seem oneasy, stranger," observed Old Man McPherson as he stacked the breakfast dishes to be washed at some future time.
"It's the goat," replied the Man of Mystery, tartly; "it sets heavy."
"If you can find a little chaw of spruce gum, it 'll take the taste out 'n your mouth." The guest had complained bitterly of the strength of the venerable billy.
The Man of Mystery paused abruptly in his walk. "If there 's as much ore in sight as you say, and the specimens you showed me are fair samples of the lode, you can put your own price on the Toad's-head. My people will come right on from Warm Springs and hand you over the money. My judgment goes with them. Corsets, mines, baby-food, it's all the same," he reiterated, with another comprehensive gesture.
Dad Falkner, sharpening his skinning knife on a whetstone, nearly amputated a finger as he heard the stranger's generous offer. Old Man McPherson turned from scraping the frying-pan and looked at him searchingly.
"Furthermore," cried the promoter, pacing to and fro, and turning his felt hat around and around in growing excitement, "if the Toad'shead is what you say, I 'll take the Black Maria on the same terms, on the strength of the ore you 've showed me."
Dad sliced another finger as a glittering vision arose before him, and he looked for a reflection of his own radiant face in Old Man McPherson's sphinx-like countenance.
"I 'll go up there now—now," shouted the Man of Mystery, a strange ashen pallor creeping over his face. "Any minute my people may be in from Warm Springs, and I won't have my report ready."
He bounded through the door, and the partners from the doorway watched his head bobbing above the quaking asp as he ran up the trail which led to the Toad's-head claim.
"Queerest-actin' cuss I ever see," said Dad, in a puzzled voice.
"It happens frequent that Capital air eccentric," Old Man McPherson replied dryly.
An hour or so later, Bayard met the stranger coming from the claim with his pockets and hat full of rocks.
"How do, sir?" he said, extending a friendly hand. "What you think of our country?"
"Think!" cried the stranger, on whose cheeks a red spot now burned. "I think there 'll be millions of dollars taken out of that prospect hole up there. I 've discovered,"—and he threw a cautious glance toward the quaking asp,—"I 've discovered that in the talc which lies between the wall and the lode there is a composition, which sells at one hundred dollars an ounce!"
"Lord!" ejaculated Bayard, growing pale. "You don't say so!"
"My people in Deer Lodge will pay any price for that claim or the Black Maria, either."
"You 'll excuse me, sir," said Bayard, hastily, "but my camping party over in the basin are waiting for me. I 'll see you again, sir, I 'll see you again." He started on a fox trot through the brush to the basin, where Old Man McPherson and Dad were removing the goat carcass from the tree.
"I 've got some bad news for you, friends," said Bayard, panting from his run. "I'm blamed sorry, but it's too late now. The game-warden is camped up here with me, and he's dead on to you fellows killing that goat. He heard the shot, and took a look at you from the ledge over there. The shooting season is n't over yet, and. as you know, there's a mighty stiff fine on goats. He's fixing to take you right back to Choteau with him."
The color faded from Dad's face. "But we can't go," he cried; "we got this deal on."
"I can't nowise accommodate him," said Old Man McPherson. "And I 've got quite an aidge on my knife here to make my refusal p'inted."
"Look here, now. You fellows don't want to get in any row over this. I'm a friend of yours, and you let me handle this matter for you. I 'll tell you what I 'll do. I 'll take those mines off your hands and shut up this game-warden's mouth. I 'll make you an offer of eight thousand dollars apiece for your mines, giving you my check for half the amount and my note for the balance. You know I'm good for it—everybody knows it. You don't know what kind of a report this stranger will hand in, and this is your chance to cinch the cash. I am willing to take the mines on a little speculation; I 've seen the ore, and I know they are all right, if properly developed. What do you say?"
"I 'll sell out fer eight thousand when there's skatin' in h—l," began Dad, his eyes blazing.
"Dad, it seems to me we air in a tight place, and it would look more to your credit if you would show some little gratitood to Bayard for tryin' to help us out, instead of abusin' him."
Old Man McPherson gave his partner a look which made that person stare blankly.
"For my part," continued Old Man McPherson in a meek voice, "I'm plumb grateful to you. I know the mines is worth more, but I'm sick of holdin' on, and, besides, I don't want to git in no scrap with the county. I hates lawin'. Look at them fellers they kept four months in jail fer killin' a cow elk! More 'n likely they 'd keep us a year fer shoot in' that dod-gasted billy."
"But, my Godfrey!" protested Dad, the stranger said if the mines was what we represented, and they air, we could set our own price. I was figgerin' on fifty thousand dollars."
"That's all good enough, if, as Bayard says, we knowed what the stranger was goin' to report on them; but here we got a chanct to sell them on the spot and sell to a friend, too. I advises,"—and he gave Dad a look from his mild, blue eyes that bored like a gimlet,—"I advises that you sell out now—with me."
Bayard could not conceal the joy which leaped into his face. "Wait here," he said hastily, "and I 'll hurry back to the tent and make out two checks and the notes."
"Air you locoed?" Dad demanded sullenly, after Bayard had gone.
"Shut up, Dad, and do what I tell you for oncet in your life. You can ask your questions when we get them checks."
Bayard was soon back with the papers.
"We can go right down to Old Man Sheldon's," he said gaily, "and get him to fill out a couple of quit-claim deeds."
When the local notary put his seal on the deeds, Bayard, with a triumphant flourish, handed his checks to the two old miners. "There you are, friends, and I hope you will always be as satisfied as you are now. I 've been on the square with you."
"I aims always to be as square as the man I'm dealin' with," replied Old Man Mcpherson, with a certain quizzical look and dry intonation which made Bayard give him a second glance.
The Man of Mystery did not come in at noon for another cut from the billy goat.
"Out prospectin' the hills somewheres," said Old Man McPherson to Bayard, who dropped in and inquired casually about the stranger and his report on the mines. "More 'n likely he 'll be in fer supper."
Bayard was at the cabin again when, at sunset, the Man of Mystery emerged from the brush, still carrying the hatful of rocks.
"Then, you are pleased, stranger, with the ore?" Bayard inquired suavely.
"Pleased?" he replied. "Delighted!" He was about to say more when the rattle of a vehicle over the rough stage-road caught his ear. He strained his eyes to distinguish the occupants of the fast-moving buckboard as it came through the trees which partly hid the road.
"T ain't no team that belongs here," Old Man McPherson was saying when suddenly the Man of Mystery gave a yell that chilled his blood.
"Wow! Wow!" he shrieked. "It's my people from Warm Springs, and my report is n't ready! Me for the straight-jacket! Me for the padded cell!" The strange ashen pallor came over his face again, and his eyes glittered like the eyes of a wild beast at bay.
Instinctively Dad and Old Man McPherson reached for the nearest weapon. Bayard picked up a loose wheel-spoke and concealed himself behind the cabin door.
"I'm the ramping, roaring lion of Scotland!" bellowed the Man of Mystery. "I am a timber-wolf looking for blood!" He hurled a rock from the "Tud'shead" at Dad that sent him down in a heap. "I'm a buzzard!" he shrieked, flapping his arms, "and you 'll excuse me if I go to roost." He tore off his coat, and climbed like a squirrel through the thick boughs of a spruce-tree till he was swaying on the top.
The buckboard stopped at the cabin, and the promoter from his aery thumbed his nose at the sheriff of the county in a manner truly undignified as that person stepped to the ground.
"You 've got him, I see," said the sheriff in a tone of relief. "Done much damage yet?"
"Kind of put Dad out of business," replied Old Man McPherson. "Is he a friend of yourn?"
"The most dangerous patient we 've got in the institution," answered the superintendent of the State Asylum, as he took a pair of handcuffs from under the seat. "Went nutty over buying a salted mine. I 've been after him for forty-eight hours, expecting to hear every minute that he'd killed a few people."
"Mebby we can give you a little help on the road if he gits a-tall onery; fer," continued Old Man McPherson, with a grin that made Bayard grip the wheel-spoke convulsively, "my pardner and me aims to ride in to Choteau to-morry to git a couple of checks cashed."